Getting on

Joyce Carol Oates

  • Colored People: A Memoir by Henry Louis Gates
    Viking, 216 pp, £16.00, January 1995, ISBN 0 670 85737 8

As in one of Escher’s visual paradoxes, where infinity opens up vertiginously within a single geometric figure, object and anti-object define each other, and ‘foreground’ and ‘background’ are made to shift according to one’s perspective, the highly combustible issue of race in America, and its consequences in terms of the academic-literary canon, depend almost entirely on one’s position. The much-publicised ‘culture wars’ and the seriocomic ‘battle of the books’ of the American literary-academic community – the bitter controversies over who will determine the sacred ‘canon’ – are less about putative standards of literature than about what constitutes a ‘worthy’ life.

Is the imprimatur of Literature to be bestowed exclusively upon the products of a ruling class, Anglo-Saxon in origin, in any case European-descended, with a further emphasis upon (heterosexual) male experience? Are the imaginative products of other kinds of experience, and therefore other lives, by definition less significant, because those lives themselves are less significant? ‘Colour is not a human or personal reality,’ James Baldwin said, ‘it is a political reality.’ Substitute ‘gender’, ‘ethnic identity’ or ‘class’ for the word ‘colour’, and one sees how far-ranging and how potentially anarchic the controversy is. And how far from being resolved, or even fully articulated.

Henry Louis Gates, professor of English and chairman of Afro-American Studies at Harvard, has been one of the most articulate commentators on the subject. His first scholarly interest was the recovery and editing of ‘lost’ and ignored texts, primarily slave narratives. By way of his position as general editor of the Schomburg Library of 19th-century Black Women Writers, and what might be called a genius for academic entrepreneurism, he has ascended to academic stardom in the United States, the envy of his coevals of whatever colour, gender or -ism. Gates is the author of major works of cultural-literary-linguistic exegesis, The Signifying Monkey and Figures in Black, as well as miscellaneous essays and reviews, some of them collected in the recent Loose Canons: Notes on the Culture Wars, a handbook of multiculturalism written with much zest, style and sly good humour – characteristics of Gates’s ‘academic’ writing in general. Loose Canons is to the maze of ‘multis’ in the once monochromatic ‘culturalism’ what Terry Eagleton’s Literary Theory: An Introduction has been to academic literary criticism – an invaluable guide.

Overlapping with some of the more personal passages of Loose Canons is Gates’s partial memoir Colored People (it ends in 1969, as the prodigious 19-year-old prepares to enter Yale). Presented as a document addressed to Gates’s young daughters, to aid them in understanding the rapidly vanishing world of his boyhood, Colored People is ‘the story of a village, a family and its friends’ as much as it is ‘Skip’ Gates’s personal account of his growing up during one of the most tumultuous periods in American history: the rise of the pacifist civil rights movement under the leadership of Martin Luther King in the mid-Fifties. The account is artless, engaging, funny, moving and disturbing by turns; each chapter is thematically focused (religion, love/sex, politics, playing hardball, family life, black/white styles of cooking, the ritual of ‘doing’ hair), rich with fondly recalled detail, like home movies narrated by the brightest and most intriguing of friends. There is no theory here, no distracting subtext. Unlike the canonical works of black male autobiography that have surely shaped Gates’s political thinking, Richard Wright’s Black Boy, for instance, James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time and No Name in the Street, and The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Colored People is not an angry, still less an incendiary work; its predominant tone is nostalgic and affectionate. ‘Everybody worked so hard to integrate the thing in the mid-Sixties, Aunt Marguerite mused, because that was what we were supposed to do then, what with Dr King and everything. But by the time those crackers made us join them ... we didn’t want to go.’ Without glossing over painful episodes of racial discrimination and the ‘inconvenience’ of segregation, Gates has written a black intellectual’s valentine to his origins with which, in its emphasis on family attachments and local pride, virtually any reader can identify.

Though he does not portray himself in such terms, for this is not a mythopoetic text, Gates does emerge as an archetypal ‘transitional figure’: he is born into a seemingly ahistorical ‘coloured’ world of the Fifties, enters adolescence in a ‘Negro’ world of the early Sixties, and comes to maturity in a politicised ‘black’ world of the late Sixties – the shift in terms suggesting the rapidity of change, the increasing intrusion of the political into the private. Beyond ‘black’ – which many older coloured people resisted using, for its historic negative connotations – lies the cumbersome ‘Afro-American’, and beyond that the still more cumbersome ‘African-American’. At the cutting edge of discourse at the present is the term ‘people (or persons) of colour’, but, as Gates predicts, the original ‘coloured people’ may well make a return, if coined in the correct quarters. In any case, Gates introduces himself as not ‘Everynegro’:

I want to be black, to know black, to luxuriate in whatever I might be calling blackness at any particular time – but to do so in order to come out the other side, to experience a humanity that is neither colourless nor reducible to colour ... What hurt me most about the late Sixties and the early Seventies is that we lost our sense of humour. Many of us thought that enlightened politics excluded it.

Piedmont, West Virginia, where Henry Louis Gates Jr was born in 1950, was a fairly prosperous mill town, in a culturally isolated valley, with a population of 2565, of whom 350 were coloured. The social topography of this thoroughly segregated world was as clearly defined as a map: each ethnic group (Italian, Irish, Wasp, coloured etc) had its neighbourhoods, and each ethnic group its prescribed work. (Coloured men employed by the paper mill, for instance, like Gates’s father, were allowed only one position regardless of their skill or intelligence: loading paper onto trucks.) White men and the occasional white woman on the prowl might venture into coloured territory with impunity, but the obverse was not possible, nor even imaginable. A Norman Rockwell smalltown landscape of the Fifties, where coloured people knew their collective place. For most coloured people, most white people were vague, shadowy-functional beings: ‘Mr Mail Man, Mr Insurance Man, Mr Landlord Man, Mr Po-lice Man ... like allegorical figures in a mystery play’ – which is ironic in the light of surreptitious interracial affairs and unacknowledged births across racial boundaries – white genes fathered on black women, of course. Segregation was perceived as a condition of existence, unquestioned. Everyone ‘got along pretty well’, as Gates says, in a characteristic ironic riff:

At least as long as coloured people didn’t try to sit down in the Cut-Rate or at the Rendezvous Bar, or eat pizza at Eddie’s, or buy property, or move into the white neighbourhoods, or dance with, date or dilate upon white people. Not to mention to try to get a job in the craft unions at the paper mill. Or have a drink at the white VFW, or join the white American Legion, or get loans at the bank, or just generally get out of line. Other than that, coloured and white got on pretty well.

That coloured people in Piedmont were not allowed to buy their own houses and land was particularly infuriating to Gates’s mother, a woman of strong convictions and extraordinary courage.

Initially, it was by way of television that the coloured of Piedmont, West Virginia, were awakened to the civil rights movement, and to the glimpsed world of ‘property whites could own and blacks couldn’t’. Television became the ‘ritual arena for the drama of race’. With civil rights legislation passed by Congress and the Federally enforced desegregation of public schools in Little Rock, Arkansas, the state universities of Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and elsewhere, the seemingly ahistorical status quo abruptly changed: by 1956, the six-year-old Gates was attending an integrated school, apparently with no trouble from whites; by 1968, when he graduated from high school, this clearly remarkable boy had been elected president of his class four times, and was valedictorian, on his way to a distinguished professional career of a kind unimaginable for coloured Piedmont students in previous generations, although Gates’s father’s family, who lived elsewhere, included doctors, lawyers, dentists, pharmacists, teachers; and his mother’s family were highly respectable Christian men and women, ‘self-righteous’ non-drinkers, non-smokers, non-gamblers. It is a point of Gates’s memoir that despite national social upheaval in the Sixties, Piedmont coloured did not lose their identities and sense of worth; the boy Skip was made to feel loved at all times, and knew himself to be ‘cloaked in the mantle of my family’. Compare this sepia-tinted portrait of familial/neighbourhood solicitude with the stark accounts of growing up black in urban areas at roughly the same time published – remarkably, in the same year – by the gifted black writers Brent Staples (Parallel Time: Growing Up in Black and White) and John Edgar Wideman (Fatheralong: A Meditation on Fathers and Sons, Race and Society). One wonders what Gates’s fate might have been if he had been born in a black urban ghetto, and not in Piedmont, West Virginia. Among other things, Colored People is a testament to pure chance: the helplessness of even the most gifted among us in the face of sheer luck, whether good or bad.

Skip Gates’s abrupt bad luck, which might well have determined his entire life, occurred when he was 14 years old, in 1964. Having injured his knee playing football, he was carelessly misdiagnosed by a white surgeon; even more crudely accused of faking. ‘There’s not a thing wrong with that child,’ the doctor tells Mrs Gates, as her son lies writhing in agony on the floor, ‘the problem’s psychosomatic. Because I know the type, and the thing is, your son’s an over-achiever.’ It doesn’t require much wit to deconstruct ‘over-achiever’: a Piedmont coloured boy with straight A’s in school who hopes to be a doctor. Fortunately, the intrepid Mrs Gates refused to believe the white authority and, in one of those impulsive actions that determine the course of a life, defied the doctor by checking her son out of the local hospital and driving him sixty miles to a university medical centre, where he would endure three operations in a single year. Eventually, Gates had to learn to walk again, since his leg muscles had atrophied and his hip had been permanently injured.

Though there are other trials, including an ugly near-lynching when Gates and high school friends try to integrate a local white tavern, fortune smiles on the protagonist of Colored People; if he is cast in the mould of an American archetype, it is that of a Horatio Alger boy-hero, whose meritorious character, clean living and willingness to work hard bring him worldly success. Colored People is a gentle and eloquent document to set beside the grittier contemporary testimonies of black male urban memoirists; in essence a work of filial gratitude, paying homage to such virtues as courage, loyalty, integrity, kindness; a pleasure to read and, in the best sense, inspiring. It is also funny. Here is part of the ‘personal statement’ the young Gates included with his application to Yale: ‘My grandfather was coloured, my father was Negro, and I am black ... As always, whitey now sits in judgment of me, preparing to cast my fate. It is your decision either to let me blow with the wind as a non-entity or to encourage the development of self. Allow me to prove myself.’ In 1929, in 1949, or even 1959, what would have been the result of such brashness? Fortunately for Gates, it was 1969, and a new America, and ‘they let me in.’